Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective David T. Cleland

Ecology and Management of Aspen:
A Lake States Perspective
David T. Cleland1, Larry A. Leefers2, and Donald I. Dickmann2
Abstract—Aspen has been an ecologically important, though relatively minor, component of the Lake States (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) forests for millennia.
General Land Office records from the 1800s indicate that aspen comprised a small
fraction of the region’s eastern forests, but was more extensive on the western edge.
Then Euro-American settlement in the 1800s brought land clearing, timber harvesting,
and subsequent widespread wildfires that increased aspen-birch acreages considerably. Although aspen-birch acreage has declined since the 1930s, it remains the
region’s second most prevalent forest type. Aspen management is probably the most
contentious issue confronting forest managers in the Lake States.
oncerns regarding the status of early successional forest communities have
emerged nationally. Across the United States, many disturbance-dependent ecosystems including prairies, savannahs, barrens, and early successional
forests have declined in recent decades. These declines are due in part to nearly
a century of fire suppression, as well as land conversion, rural development, and
grazing. However, loss of late successional communities is also of national
concern. Thus, both ends of the successional spectrum, young early successional
forests and old late successional forests, have declined due to human activities.
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and bigtooth aspen (Populus
grandidentata) are among the premier early successional species in the United
States. Quaking aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America
(figure 1), whereas the distribution of bigtooth aspen is confined primarily to
the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes Region (figure 2). These
two species, and their less common eastern associates, paper and gray birch
(Betula papyrifera and B. populifolia), are often characterized as the aspen-birch
forest type.
Aspen and aspen-birch forests occur in 27 states within the United States,
extending from Alaska to New Mexico in the west and from Maine to West
Virginia in the east. The greatest acreage occurs in the eastern states of
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine, and in the intermountain and
mountain states of Utah and Colorado. Combined, these six states have 86% of
the aspen and aspen-birch acreage in the lower 48 states. Based on the most
recent Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) inventories, there are approximately
20.3 million acres of aspen and aspen-birch forest types (predominantly aspen)
in the lower 48 states. These types comprise 7% of the nation’s forest lands
(298.1 million acres of land stocked at least 1⁄6 with trees) and 10% of the nation’s
timberland (198.1 million acres of more productive forest land; Powell et al.
1993). The Lake States (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) are notably the
stronghold of the aspen-birch forest type, with 12.9 million acres, or 63%, of the
total acreage, in the lower 48 states.
Within the Lake States, there are 51.9 million acres of forest lands, of which
49.0 million acres are considered timberland. Recent FIA data indicate that the
aspen-birch forest type covers 6.3 million, 3.4 million, and 3.2 million acres of
USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-18. 2001.
1 North
Central Research Station,
Forestry Sciences Laboratory, USDA
Forest Service, Rhinelander, WI.
2Michigan State University, Department of Forestry, East Lansing, MI.
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Figure 1—Range map for quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) (source:
Burns and Honkala 1990).
Figure 2—Range map for bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) (source:
Burns and Honkala 1990).)
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, respectively (Leatherberry and Spencer
1996; Miles et al. 1995; Schmidt 1997). The extent of forests is important, but
ownership patterns are as well—ownership provides insights regarding management options. In the Lake States, 62% of the timberlands are in private
ownership, dominated by nonindustrial private landowners.
Public ownership is also important across the region, and each state’s public
ownership has evolved differently since the turn of the 20th century. “The lands
nobody wanted” 100 years ago became the extensive Lake States public lands,
intermixed with private lands (Shands and Healy 1977). Minnesota’s public
lands are, in descending order of magnitude, state forests, county and municipal
forests, and national forests. Wisconsin’s public lands are mostly county and
municipal forests followed by national and state forests. In Michigan, state
forests and national forests are the principal public ownerships; there are few
county forests.
The purpose of this paper is to present a Lake States’ perspective on aspen
ecology and management, thereby providing a broader comparative context for
conditions in the western United States. To this end, we describe the historical
evolution of the aspen forests in the Lake States, contemporary aspen trends, and
management options for aspen in a multiownership/multiobjective environment.
Historical Role of Aspen in the Lake States
Today’s acreage of aspen in the Lake States is largely due to the extensive
disturbance rendered by turn-of-the-century logging and fires, which greatly
favored disturbance-dependent species. Understanding the ecological and social
importance of aspen in the Lake States therefore requires a historical perspective.
Ecological Change
During the early part of the Holocene (ca. 10,000 YBP, years before
present), following the last series of glacial advances and retreats, the forests of
the Lake States underwent dynamic transformations in response to climate
change and biological processes, including species migration and forest succession. Broad-scale changes occurred over thousands of years due to the long-term
response of vegetation to variations in temperature, moisture, and air mass
patterns (Webb et al. 1993). Most of the taxa present in the Lake States today
had migrated into the region by 6,000 YBP, with virtually all taxa except
hemlock established by 3,000 YBP (Brubaker 1975; Davis 1981; Davis et al.
1993; Frelich 1995; and Webb et al. 1993).
Although the migration of species into the region stabilized at least 3,000
years ago, species’ distributions have continued to shift when viewed at a
landscape scale (measured in tens of thousands of acres). The nature and rate of
these changes have been regulated by interactions of minor climatic fluctuations
like the Little Ice Age (600–150 YBP), natural disturbance regimes, insect and
disease outbreaks, landform-controlled soil, topographic and hydrologic conditions (Host et al. 1987), and species-specific reproductive strategies and life
Mesophilic, wind-driven ecosystems primarily supporting long-lived tree
species (e.g., sugar maple, yellow birch, hemlock) historically changed slowly
over centuries due to fine-scale blow-downs and relatively rare broad-scale
catastrophic storms [Canham and Loucks 1984; Frelich and Lorimer 1991;
Runkle 1982]). These “asbestos” forests seldom burned, and exhibited a
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Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
repeating yet shifting steady state of fine-scaled mosaics of species whose overall
proportions remained essentially constant (Borman and Likens 1979). These
unevenaged, mesic forests were characterized by supercanopies of trees that
were centuries old.
The age and landscape structure of mesophylic forests contrasted with firedependent ecosystems, such as spruce-fir, aspen-birch, and red or jack pine
forests. These pyrophilic ecosystems were typically evenaged, and were composed of both long-lived tree species (e.g., white and red pine) and short-lived
species (e.g., jack pine, aspen, white birch). Locations and sizes of forest patches
changed over time due to disturbances from wildfire and burning by indigenous
people; changes were more frequent and dramatic than in the mesic hemlockhardwood forests. Cover types were replaced in patches of hundreds to
thousands of acres within several decades to a century or more. Vegetation types
were variously savannas, barrens, or dense coniferous forest, depending on fire
frequency and extent. Thus, age classes and patch configurations of mesophilic
and pyrophilic forests generally followed an ecosystem-dependent periodicity
and spatial pattern associated with particular natural disturbance regimes.
While it is commonly accepted that wind and fire disturbance altered local
and landscape ecosystems, minor climatic fluctuations did not result in major
changes at any scale (Frelich 1995). Pielou (1991) explains this relative stability
in the face of climate change with the concept of ecological inertia. She defined
ecological inertia as the lag in forest change due to plant persistence, with
established communities physically preventing encroachment by invading species that were better adapted to changed climatic conditions—species simply
would not have time to migrate. This delayed response of vegetation to shortterm climatic change may explain why the biogeography of forest trees changed
steadily following Pleistocene glaciation, without any reversals in the direction
of the change. She noted that, in addition to ecological inertia, natural selection
for progeny adapted to changed conditions also resulted in stability.
Early Human Influences
Understanding the cause and rate of natural change that formerly influenced
and distinguished the landscape and local ecosystems of the Lake States,
technically termed the dynamics of homeorhetic stability (O’Neill et al. 1986;
Reice 1994), requires consideration of biological processes, the physical environment, and disturbance regimes. Human influences have long been integral
to these processes, although the extent of early influences remains a matter of
Hunter (1996) makes the point that although the “overall ecological impact
of Native Americans was much less than that of Europeans, it was significant in
certain times and places.” We know that pre-European contact indigenous
populations in North America were a very small fraction of modern human
populations. Denevan (1992) estimated there were 53.9 million Native Americans in the “New World” in 1492, with 3.8 million in North America. He
asserted that “the Indian impact was neither benign nor localized.” All ecosystems in the Lake States were not equally susceptible to fire, and burning by
indigenous people would have primarily affected systems prone to burn, such as
barrens, savannas, upland mixed conifer and oak forests, and other firedependent systems. Thus, the overall impact within pyrophilic ecosystems
would have been large. This was not the case, however, in fire-intolerant, mesic
hardwood forests that occurred throughout much of the Lake States at the time
of European settlement.
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Stearns (1949) noted that “in the virgin hardwood timber, fire is in the
opinion of the writer rarely of much importance as the initial agent of
catastrophe although it often follows windfall.” He observed that “hot slash fires
have burned on the cutover hardwood land. Although these fires burned to the
edge of the virgin stand they did not penetrate into it more than a few rods.” Even
the sweeping wildfires that occurred following the turn-of-the-century logging
did not fully consume the advanced regeneration of fire-intolerant hardwood
species such as sugar maple in the moraines, loamy glacial lakebeds, and other
mesic landforms of the Lake States. The flora of the “asbestos” forests in many
cases simply would not burn, probably due to the high moisture content and low
fine-fuel loading of the forest floor, and the “inability of the vegetation
comprising the understory or residual tree sapling and pole strata to carry fire”
(Whitney 1986, 1987). Hence, fire seldom affected mesic hardwood ecosystems, and burning by indigenous people would likely have had minimal impact
on them.
Early Records of Lake States Forest Conditions
The original land survey by the General Land Office (GLO) is the earliest
systematically recorded information on forest composition in the Lake States.
The GLO surveys began in 1826 in Michigan, 1832 in Wisconsin, and 1847 in
Minnesota (Stearns 1995). GLO surveyors noted tree species and their diameters along section lines, providing a grid of transects approximately 1 mile apart.
Locations of recently burned areas, windthrows, beaver impoundments, rivers
and streams, wetlands, existing settlements, trails and roads, and agricultural
potential of soils were recorded, and generalized maps of timber types and soil
quality were prepared. Pre-European settlement forest land conditions have
been mapped by scientists using land survey notes in each of the three Lake States
(Comer et al. 1995; Finley 1976; Marschner 1974). All of these maps were
developed subjectively to some degree.
General Land Office data and related maps provide insights regarding the
pre-European extent of aspen, which was probably an order of magnitude less
in the historic forests in Michigan and Wisconsin than today. In northern
Minnesota, 13% of all bearing trees recorded by the surveyors were aspen
(Almendinger 1997), and nearly 30% of the forest land was composed of mixed
communities that included aspen as a component. The situation then (and to a
lesser degree now) was that extensive areas of mixed conifer-aspen, aspen-birch,
and aspen-oak forests were present in Minnesota, each typified by high densities
of aspen stems. Northern Wisconsin and northern Michigan had much smaller
aspen components—approximately 300,000 acres in each (Comer et al. 1995;
Finley 1976).
Ostensibly, maps generated from GLO notes only provide a single measurement of forest conditions during the early to mid-nineteenth century. As noted,
climate change, disturbance regimes, and physical substrates must be considered
when interpreting the meaning and utility of maps of historic forests relative to
changes in forest ecosystems. Contemporary forests, where aspen is much more
prevalent, have undergone tremendous change when compared to these earlier
forests. And people set the stage.
The Root of the Aspen Boom
Although aspen had played a significant though minor role in the preEuropean settlement forest of the northern Lake States, that situation began
to change during the mid-19th century. At that time, prime timber in the
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Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
northeastern United States was nearly gone. Furthermore, good farmland was
scarce for young people starting out on their own and for immigrants just off the
boat from Europe. So naturally eyes began to turn toward the virgin pinelands
of the Great Lakes—“The West,” as it was then known. The timber was
magnificent, land was cheap, and state and federal governments vigorously
promoted settlement. Furthermore, the then guiding principle of Manifest
Destiny deemed that the wilderness had to be tamed so people could settle and
farm the land. What happened in the next 80 years was indeed settlement on a
grand scale, but it also turned into a rampant human-caused disaster and an
ecological disruption seldom rivaled. It couldn’t have been better for aspen.
Beginning in about 1850 in the Saginaw River Valley of Michigan, then
spreading north and west through the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, the timber barons and their legions of shanty
boys went to work on the timber. Pine was on the top of their priority list, but
hemlock, cedar, and hardwoods were exploited when the pine was gone. By
1930 most of the virgin timber in the Lake States had been felled. Today,
remnant old-growth forests are virtually nonexistent in Michigan and Wisconsin, although some large tracts still exist in extreme northern Minnesota,
principally in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. What amounted to the clearcut
of three states would have bode well enough for the future of aspen, but what
usually followed logging suited this “Phoenix tree” even better (Graham et al.
Disastrous wildfires regularly ripped through the cut-over forest lands,
usually in late summer or autumn following periods of extreme drought
(Haines and Sando 1969). Consuming both people and pine reproduction
without partiality, these fires created in their aftermath ideal conditions for aspen
regeneration. The deadliest fires have become part of the lore of American
forestry (Holbrook 1944). October 8, 1871, for example, was the worst day of
wildfire in recorded history. The Peshtigo and Great Michigan Fires roared
through Wisconsin and Michigan, killing nearly 1,500 people and blackening
well over 3 million acres. On that same day The Great Chicago Fire burned most
of that city to the ground, and thousands of acres of midwestern prairies were
ablaze. Other wildfires achieved great notoriety: the 1881 Thumb and 1908
Metz Fires in Michigan; the 1894 fires that consumed much of northwest
Wisconsin; and the 1894 Hinckley, 1910 Baudette, and 1918 Cloquet Fires in
Minnesota. These fires often reburned land that had previously been scorched,
creating an ecologically ideal situation for aspen by diminishing tree competition, creating an optimal seedbed, and stimulating sucker regrowth.
Michigan provides the extreme case study of wildfire’s effect on aspen—of
the three northern Great Lakes States, none was hit harder by 19th and early 20th
century wildfires. Extensive areas were converted from pine to aspen. The area
burned during the 60-year period beginning in 1871 is staggering—nearly 11
million acres, most in the northern part of the state (Mitchell and Robson 1950)
(figure 3). Three caveats regarding these data, however, need to be emphasized.
First, prior to 1930 the perimeters of large fires rarely were carefully measured,
so their areas are only rough estimates. An exception was the disastrous 1881
Thumb Fire, the extent of which was carefully documented by Sgt. William O.
Bailey of the U.S. Signal Service (Bailey 1882). Second, many smaller fires were
not reported, much less known about, so yearly areas actually burned prior to
1930 probably exceed the recorded estimates, in some case by a considerable
extent. Third, wildfires frequently reburned areas consumed in previous conflagrations, often repeatedly. Thus, the yearly burn estimates cannot be viewed as
a continually expanding cumulative area of the state.
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Millions of Acres
Figure 3—Estimated areas burned by
wildfires during three early periods of
Michigan history and the last decade of
the 20th century. Areas are likely to be
underestimated prior to 1930 (sources:
Mitchell and Robson 1950; U.S. Forest
Service; Michigan Department of Natural Resources).
Due to the combined effects of logging and wildfires, between a fifth and a
quarter of northern Michigan was transformed into conditions favoring the
establishment of aspen. Similar situations occurred in Wisconsin and Minnesota. This was a monumental ecological event and led to what is probably the
largest human-caused forest type conversion in history. The irony of these
profound events is that while their intent was to clear the land for the
establishment of a vast agricultural enterprise, they instead led to a 20th century
timber boom that mirrored the shanty boys’ efforts from the previous century.
However, the latter-day boom fed on aspen fiber, rather than pine lumber.
In contrast to the pre-1930s situation, wildfire currently plays a minor role
in the regeneration ecology of aspen. Fire prevention and suppression efforts
have reduced the millions of acres burned before and after the turn of the 20th
century to a negligible amount—e.g., 51,630 acres in Michigan in the decade
from 1990 to 1999. Wisconsin and Minnesota experienced similar success in
taming wildfire. Thus, aspen’s future in the northern Lake States depends on
continued harvesting of mature stands to promote sucker regrowth and silvicultural practices aimed at natural seed regeneration or planting on carefully
prepared sites. Notwithstanding these efforts, the over 17 million acres of aspen
that once occupied the cut-over, burned-over lands of these three states will
likely never be seen again, or at least never on such a grand scale. The relevant
followup question, then, becomes—Why is this a problem?
FIA Records of Change: From the 1930s to Present
The aftermath of logging and burning had social as well as ecological
impacts. The rotating ownership of denuded lands eventually gave way to a
pattern of private and public ownership across the three-state region. Fire
control became commonplace. And slowly, the forests grew, increasing in
quality and extent.
Cunningham and Moser (1938a) noted that “…forests originally occupied
80% of all the land in the three States…”, and in the 1930s that there was “…a
large volume of wood of inferior quality and inferior species available for
immediate use…”. Over 11 million acres of previous forest land was still
deforested in the mid-1930s—a target for planting by the Civilian Conservation
Although sample methods and definitions have evolved over the 60+ years
of FIA inventories, these data provide the best measures we have of forest
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Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
changes over the Lake States region. Since its recorded peak in the Lake States
in the 1930s, aspen-birch acreage has decreased by 24% based on five FIA forest
surveys/cycles (Chase et al. 1970; Cunningham et al. 1958; Cunningham and
Moser 1938a,b; Findell et al. 1960; Guilkey et al. 1954; Jakes 1980; Lake States
Forest Experiment Station 1936; Leatherberry and Spencer 1996; Miles et al.
1995; Raille 1985; Raile and Smith 1983; Schmidt 1997; Spencer and Thorne
1972; Stone 1966; Stone and Thorne 1961). The absolute acreage and rate of
decline has varied by state, however (figure 4). Over a 58-year period in
Michigan (1935 to 1993) and a 61-year period in Wisconsin (1935 to 1996),
aspen-birch acreage declined by 37 and 36%, respectively. Over a 55-year period
in Minnesota (1935 to 1990), aspen-birch acreage declined by only 6%.
The decrease in aspen-birch acreage in Wisconsin was relatively constant
over this 61-year period, ranging from 0.6 to 0.9% per year. In Michigan, the
decrease between 1935 and 1966 was also relatively constant, about 0.2% per
year. Between 1966 and 1980, this rate increased seven-fold to 1.4% per year,
dropping to 1.0% per year between 1980 and 1993. In Minnesota, a different
trend has occurred. Aspen-birch declined initially, but then expanded modestly.
The area of aspen-birch declined between 1977 and 1990 by 6%, or 0.4% per
year. The end result of these declines creates a greatly reduced aspen-birch
resource in Michigan and Wisconsin, and a slightly reduced area in Minnesota,
where aspen-birch management has been more intensive.
Contemporary Aspen Trends in the Lake States
While acreages have declined since the 1930s, aspen-birch remains the
second most prevalent forest type in the Lake States, representing 26% of the
region’s 49.0 million acres of timberland and 25% of the region’s 51.9 million
acres of forest lands. Only northern hardwoods (maple-beech-birch) have a
greater acreage, comprising 28% of the region’s timberlands and 27% of the
forest lands.
Millions of Acres
Cycle 1 (1935, 1935, 1935)
Cycle 2 (1953, 1956, 1955)
Cycle 3 (1962, 1968, 1966)
Cycle 4 (1977, 1983, 1980)
Cycle 5 (1990, 1996, 1993)
Figure 4—Area of aspen-birch in the
Lake States over the five FIA forest survey cycles (cycle year in parentheses
for Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, respectively (source: USDA Forest
Service Lake States Forest Experiment
Station and North Central Forest Experiment Station).
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
As we see in the long-term trends, intensive management/disturbance will
be required to maintain or expand aspen area. Otherwise, the regional decline
in the aspen-birch forest type will continue (e.g., there was a 1.3 million acre
decline between the most recent forest inventory cycles). Indications that
contemporary management is intensifying are reflected in (1) changes in aspen
size classes, (2) forest type transitions identified in recent FIA surveys, and
(3) reported production, sales, and stumpage prices.
The last two FIA survey cycles (4 and 5) spanned 13 years for Minnesota
(1977, 1990), Wisconsin (1983, 1996), and Michigan (1980, 1993) (Jakes
1980; Leatherberry and Spencer 1996; Miles et al. 1995; Raille 1985; Raile and
Smith 1983; Schmidt 1997). During this time, aspen (rather than aspen-birch)
area declined by 5, 11, and 21% in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan,
respectively (figure 5). However, several patterns indicating intensive management have appeared. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, acreage of aspen seedlingsapling increased from 39 to 55% and 28 to 34%, respectively, of the total
acreage in this forest type. In Michigan, total acres of aspen seedling-sapling
decreased, but the proportions remained relatively constant (40–41%). Across
the three-state region, the area of aspen seedling-sapling increased from 34 to
41% of the total acreage in this forest type. In Minnesota, seedling-sapling and
sawtimber area increased, but there was a substantial decline in poletimber (1.2
million acres). Wisconsin had declines in area of poletimber and sawtimber
stands. Michigan’s poletimber area declined, too, but the sawtimber area
Ingrowth and conversions into and out of aspen also influence the long-term
composition of the Lake States forests. Remeasured FIA plots were examined
to identify transitions from aspen to other types between cycle 4 and 5
(figure6). In Minnesota, a high percentage of plots that were aspen in cycle 4
remained as aspen in cycle 5. This percentage declined to the east. The increasing
transition from aspen to maple-beech-birch is evident from west to east. Of
course, there also are transitions into aspen—the major source of new aspen
acreage is from various softwood forest types. But overall, more land is
converting from aspen to more tolerant species than to aspen.
Estimates of current net annual growth versus current annual removals
provide another indication of intensity of aspen harvest. Based on the most
recent FIA reports, removals exceed net growth by 8% in Minnesota and 45%
Thousands of
Figure 5—Size class distribution for aspen forest type over last two survey
cycles (4 and 5) for Minnesota (1977,
1990), Wisconsin (1983, 1996), and
Michigan (1980, 1993) (source: USDA
Forest Service North Central Forest Experiment Station).
WI (1983) WI (1996)
USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-18. 2001.
MI (1980) MI (1993)
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Figure 6—Percentage of area based on
remeasured FIA plots that were aspen in
cycle 4, and aspen and other types in
cycle 5 (source: USDA Forest Service
Eastwide Forest Inventory Data Base).
in Wisconsin. Removals are slightly less than net growth (98%) in Michigan.
This is an indication of very intensive harvesting, particularly considering the
questionable availability of private nonindustrial lands for timber production
and the declining availability of federal lands.
Aspen has not always been a popular commodity. Holcomb and Jones
(1938) wrote:
As the supply of other material becomes scarcer and the aspen reached favorable size,
several industries began to use it. Many thousands of cords are now consumed annually for
excelsior, paper, box shooks, fuel wood, and even fence posts.
It must be remembered, though, that aspen is serving as a nurse crop on depleted soil
and much of it will give way to better soil demanding and more permanent species as the
soil regains its former productivity.
Later, Spencer and Thorne (1972) emphasized that “[a]spen, one of the
postfire species, was especially prolific and was considered a virtually useless
weed species by many until recently.”
It is no longer a weed tree. The level of aspen pulpwood production has
increased substantially in the past 20 years, with Minnesota responsible for most
of the growth (figure 7)—this mirrors the higher level of aspen area retention
Thousands of
Figure 7—Aspen pulpwood production
in the Lake States, 1970-1997 (source:
USDA Forest Service North Central Forest Experiment Station).
Lake States
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
in Minnesota. While overall aspen production is up, the role of the national
forests has diminished (figure 8). Increasing prices for aspen stumpage provide
an incentive for many landowners to harvest their timber.
In addition to its role in the timber market economy, the aspen forest type
is synonymous with two popular game species in the Lake States—white-tailed
deer and ruffed grouse. Hundreds of thousands of hunters wander the north
woods with hopes of a successful encounter with these species. But there is much
more to aspen in terms of habitat than simply white-tailed deer and ruffed
grouse. Beyer (1983), for example, identified 60 bird species and 111 species of
vegetation on his aspen study sites—all associated with timber harvesting. Older
aspen can provide essential cavities for birds, and decaying aspen contributes to
the dynamics of forest death and rebirth.
Based on indicators of changes in acres in aspen size classes and percent of
growth harvested, aspen is being managed intensively in the Lake States. So the
question again—Why is this a problem?
Management Options for Aspen
The Lake States, like most regions, has many people with different views on
the appropriate use of forest lands. Some would have the forest protected from
harvest, perceived as exploitation. Others would have them managed even more
intensively. Many fall somewhere between the extremes—this creates the root
of the problem, what to do with the aspen forests?
Aspen management has given rise to a number of contentious issues.
Perhaps foremost are concerns regarding biodiversity, and the effects of aspen
management on forest fragmentation and loss of interior habitats needed for
area-sensitive species. And although aspen provides critical habitat for many
species such as the ruffed grouse, it also helps support enormous deer populations. Overpopulation by deer has led to tens of thousands of car-deer collisions
annually in each of the Lake States, has resulted in excessive browsing of tree
seedlings and ground flora in general, and according to the National Center for
Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, Georgia, has contributed to Wisconsin and
Minnesota ranking seventh and tenth in incidence of lyme disease per capita in
Figure 8—Aspen volume sold and nominal price per MBF equivalent from the
Lake States National Forests, 1978-1999
(source: USDA Forest Service; Cut &
Sold Reports).
Volume Sold in MMBF
Nominal Price per MBF
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Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
the United States. Thus, management options for aspen are influenced by both
social and ecological considerations. Rather than prescribe a social fix, we
present a number of options for managing a resilient aspen resource.
The silvicultural prescription for aspen retention on a site has been traditionally viewed by Great Lakes foresters in a rather simplistic way—clearcut a mature
stand, stand back and let suckers retake the site, wait, and then clearcut again
when the stand matures. No site preparation, no cleaning, no thinning, no pest
control, little thinking. Whereas this prescription has worked well in many
situations and represents a viable silvicultural option for aspen, the more
complex objectives of modern forest management dictate that additional pages
be added to the active prescription manual for aspen (Perala 1977). This need
is particularly acute for managers of public lands. The traditional approach also
does not take into account ecological situations that might call for promoting
succession out of aspen, or deterring aspen suckering, e.g., a dense understory
of desirable trees and shrubs. Table 1 summarizes the palate of silvicultural
options that are available to managers, depending on their management
objectives. Our table extends the decision tree for management of mature Lake
States aspen proposed by Stone (1997).
Management for timber represents the most straightforward approach to
aspen silviculture, especially on forest industry lands. In this case the overriding
objective is to maintain a continual supply of aspen raw material to the mill, so
rapid growth, yield per acre, wood uniformity, and sustainability are paramount
concerns. For pulpwood, oriented strandboard, or solid wood products, the
conventional clearcut-coppice prescription works fine in most situations, with
rotation length determined by culmination of mean annual increment or a
diminishing economic rate of return. But other options are available, e.g.,
selective or strip thinning of sapling through pole-size stands (Brinkman and
Roe 1975). Thinning has been demonstrated to reduce the length of pulpwood
rotations (Jones et al. 1990), increase net volume increment (Weingartner and
Doucet 1990), and increase sawtimber output up to 40% and veneer output up
to 140% (Perala 1977). Thinning also can be an effective means of eliminating
poor clones from a stand, provided residual densities are heavy enough to retard
suckering. Blandin Paper Company in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, has mechanically thinned about 6,500 ha in the past decade. Their prescription for 8- to 10year-old aspen sapling stands calls for flattening 2 to 2.5 m wide strips at a
spacing of 2 to 3 m (Zasada et al. 2000).
An argument against thinning has been that low stand densities promote
infection by Hypoxylon mammatum (Anderson and Martin 1981), especially in
the very susceptible quaking aspen. Because considerable interclonal variation in
canker incidence exists in quaking aspen (Ostry and Anderson 1990), thinning
can be a viable option if it is restricted to the most resistant clones. Another
option would be to delay thinning of dense stands until the lower branches have
naturally pruned, since branches are a major entry point of Hypoxylon infection.
On the other end of the scale of management complexity from forest
industry are public land agencies—in particular the USDA Forest Service and
the state Departments of Natural Resources. Here, timber is just one of many
management objectives (table 1), and in some cases a minor one. Aspen’s vital
role as habitat for game and nongame wildlife, its role as a component of oldgrowth systems or landscape diversity, and its aesthetic appeal presents a
spectrum of management options for public land managers (Brinkman and Roe
1975). Therefore, silvicultural prescriptions—in addition to the traditional
clearcut-coppice approach—could be designed to develop a multiage-class
USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-18. 2001.
Generally large
(40+ acres) or entire
Size of harvest units
USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-18. 2001.
Precommercial or
commercial thinning
optional for dense stands
or to expand desirable
Pure stands preferred
Overstory composition
Pure or mixed species,
multistoried stands
depending on habitat
No harvest or disturbance means succession to a vegetation type devoid of aspen.
Mature aspen seed trees must be upwind of harvest unit; larger sites may be planted.
Very short rotations (<20 years) may lead to deterioration of aspen root systems.
Provided adequate potential for sucker reproduction exists.
Noned, except where a
dense understory of
tolerant trees requires
cutting, burning, or
herbicide treatment
Site preparation
Generally none
20-80+ years depending
on area age class
30-70 years , depending
on site and clone
10-100+ acres depending
on habitat objectives
Clearcut or variable
retention of other
desirable species
Rotation or
cutting cycle
Clearcut commercially
mature stands
Pure or mixed species,
multistoried stands
Optional; thinning will
produce large-diameter
trees more quickly
60-120+ years
<5 acres to entire stand
Nonea, variable aspen
retention, clearcut, or
burn as stand breaks up
Management objective
Old growth or
Both pure and mixed
Generally none
35-70+ years
Extremely variable
Clearcut or burn as
necessary to maintain
aspen type
Pure or mixed stands;
subsequent clearcut
harvests can increase
aspen component
Cleaning may be
necessary in the first or
second year after
establishment of aspen
Burn, scarify, herbicides,
or a combination to
reduce competition and
create a seedbed
Variable depending on
existing forest type
ca. 40 acres maximum for
seed regenerationb
Clearcut existing stand—
hardwood or conifer
Conversion to aspen
Table 1—Alternative silvicultural approaches to management of Lake States aspen. In all cases the main objective is the retention of aspen as a component of the stand.
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
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Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
distribution across a local administrative district or area; promote mixed,
vertically stratified stands with aspen as a major or minor component; grow
large-diameter old-growth trees; produce standing or down dead aspen stems;
and create vistas where the beauty of aspen and other forest types can be viewed
by the public. To meet these objectives, creative application of clearcuts of
varying size, thinnings from above or below, dispersed or aggregated partial
harvest cuttings, and prescribed burning can be employed (Perala 1977;
Weingartner and Doucet 1990).
Retention of aspen or other species on a harvest unit offers a range of creative
options to produce stands that meet multiple objectives. Dispersed retention of
trees, however, reduces sucker density and growth compared to a complete
clearcut, especially if the residuals are aspen (Perala 1977). Nonetheless, residual
basal areas as high as 14 m2 per ha still can produce adequate aspen stocking,
although the resulting regeneration will likely be mixed in composition (Doucet
1989). Recent work in the southeastern and western boreal forest has shown
that quaking aspen will reproduce in gaps of various sizes that develop in a
mature overstory (Cumming et al. 2000; Kneeshaw and Bergeron 1998). Thus,
pure or mixed aspen stands could even be managed under an uneven-aged
system, at least until tolerant species begin to dominate the understory.
Retention of pines, spruces, oaks, black cherry, and other desirable species on
harvest units can produce mixed aspen stands with improved wildlife habitat,
diversity, or visual qualities. Aggregated retention provides another means to a
similar end, without the penalty of reduced aspen stocking on the harvested
areas. Groups from <1 ha to several ha in size of mature aspen or associated
species can be left on an otherwise clearcut harvest unit to create patches of old
growth or for other values.
Burning is another silvicultural approach that could be employed on a wider
scale by public land managers in the Lake States. In this case the prescription
would be to let fire be the selective agent, creating an unpredictable but
nonetheless very natural mosaic within the burn unit. Aspen is uniquely adapted
ecologically to recapture a site following fire (Perala 1995). Fire also can increase
understory diversity and biomass in stands of sucker regeneration (Brown and
DeByle 1989). Burning could be especially useful in the management of
wilderness areas where timber harvesting is prohibited or in old-growth units.
Private organizations like The Nature Conservancy also could utilize more fully
the use of fire in managing aspen on their lands.
Other ownership categories fall somewhere between timber industry and
public land agencies in the range of silvicultural options of choice. Organizations
that promote game habitat—like the Ruffed Grouse Society or hunting clubs—
may have habitat enhancement and diversity as their overriding objectives. In
many cases dispersal of small clearcuts across their ownership provides the
diversity of age classes needed to support high animal densities. In some cases
partial cuttings or fire also may be employed. Still other land managers may
choose to reduce aspen clearcutting to reduce fragmentation. One means would
be to aggregate compatible land uses, concentrate aspen management in large
blocks where possible, and avoid management in areas adjacent to continuous
forest lands. Another means would be to selectively thin aspen, leaving residual
trees and advanced regeneration composed of later successional species. Retention of some aspen trees may reduce sucker density because sprouting is
hormonally controlled, and is suppressed by auxin transported from the stem to
the roots (Schier et al. 1985).
In any discussion of ownership management options, the nonindustrial
private forest land (NIPF) owners are the wild card. Ranging from complete
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
Cleland, Leefers, and Dickmann
unawareness of or disinterest in management in any form to sophisticated tree
farm operations, the pervasive NIPFs could choose any or all of the options
presented in table 1. Education always is of paramount importance when dealing
with NIPFs, and in the context of this discussion perhaps the major task facing
extension or service foresters is to convince NIPFs that doing nothing means the
eventual loss of aspen. This fact has and will continue to come as an unpleasant
surprise for many of these owners, especially if their prize aspen stand already has
gone around the bend and broken up. On the other hand, the revelation that
mature aspen can be sold at an excellent price, with little danger of regeneration
failure, may strike other owners as a deal too good to pass up.
A final topic needs particular emphasis—aspen can be regenerated by seed
(Zasada et al. 2000). Death and breakup of existing stands, therefore, does not
necessarily mean inevitable reduction of the aspen component in a particular
landscape. Three factors must come together, however, to get an adequate catch
of aspen seedlings on a clearcut or shelterwood harvest area (Brinkman and Roe
1975). First, an adequate rain of seed must occur, which will occur in most years,
particularly if aspen seed trees border the harvest unit. Second, a receptive
seedbed must be prepared, either by scarification to expose mineral soil or by a
hot fire. Third, seedfall must be followed by cool, moist conditions until
seedlings are well established. While the last factor is not controllable by
silviculturists, proper attention to the first two will produce a likelihood of
success that does not differ appreciably from natural regeneration of most Lake
States tree species.
Aspen has declined in the Lake States over the past 70 years, although the
baseline for these losses was established immediately following a time and a
human-caused series of disturbances with no historical precedent. The species
and its minor associates remain the second most dominant forest type in the
region, and increases in market prices and harvest intensity suggest that
aggressive management will continue. As Hunter (1999) pointed out, “Aspen
forests in the Lake States, which originated after severe, repeated fires following
logging of the old-growth pine, are now valuable enough that foresters
consciously perpetuate a severe disturbance regime that was quite uncommon
before exploitation.” It appears that the aspen forest type is secure for now in the
Lake States, although additional loss of acreage, particularly from unmanaged
private lands, is almost certain in some areas.
Questions of balance remain, however. Simultaneously meeting production
and conservation goals of sustainable forest management remains an unmet
national and international challenge. Blending aspen management with other
ecosystem and species maintenance and restoration needs is probably the
greatest challenge confronting forest managers in the Lake States. A potential
exists to increase aspen productivity through even more intensive management.
There is also considerable potential to supplement current supply by increasing
the use of fast-growing hybrid aspens or poplars in reforesting poorly stocked
forest lands and abandoned agricultural lands. The potential also exists to reduce
adverse effects of aspen management by assessing resource conditions and trends
across broad geographic areas, identifying opportunities and limitations for
multiple-use management that features both conservation and production
emphases, and engaging in collaborative resource education, planning, management, and monitoring. In other words, engaging in a voluntary multiownership
USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-18. 2001.
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Ecology and Management of Aspen: A Lake States Perspective
adaptive management strategy that accommodates desired outcomes among
cooperating parties. Under this scenario, the rights and choices of private
citizens and landowners, goals of industrial interests, and mandates of government
agencies might all be honored while resource production and conservation are
By acknowledging feasible options and mimicking natural disturbances
while maintaining or restoring forest composition and age-class structures at
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